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As a professor of communication advocating for the liberal arts, I recently faced a tough crowd. The admissions event was filled with prospective first-generation college students and their parents. I knew that if these apprehensive young people completed applications and ACTs, and if they were accepted, and if they were able to borrow enough money, they might become students on my campus—the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh.

Liberal arts education
UW Oshkosh students tending to a community-based garden.

As I awaited my opportunity to explain our new University Studies Program of general education, I anticipated an enthusiastic response. Years in the crafting, this dramatic reform—which prioritizes the learning and skills necessary to succeed in the twenty-first century, while sparking a lifelong embrace and pursuit of civic engagement, cultural understanding and sustainability—had reignited the liberal-arts flame among faculty and staff. I was ready to represent our passionate and collective commitment, to inspire these young people and their parents. After my introduction as “the director of a new program of required general-education courses here to take your questions,” the first inquiry came hurtling my way:

What is general education?

Looking at the young inquisitor, I imagined the next steps of her academic journey in the University Studies Program. She’d start exploring in a small learning community, documenting and reflecting on her progress in an e-portfolio, receiving guidance from peer and alumni mentors, contributing through community-based learning, and perhaps studying abroad or completing a research project with a faculty member. Given these high-impact educational practices and the results of nationwide employer surveys, I was convinced that her liberal-arts journey would be transformative. I also knew that within just a few years, this young woman could be speaking at her own graduation, addressing the question I wanted to answer but was not being asked: What is the value of a liberal-arts education in the twenty-first century?

But in this moment, the high-school student deserved an answer. And so did her mother, who was eyeing me suspiciously. What is general education? She didn’t know. Her daughter didn’t know. And before I could even formulate a response and link it to the liberal arts, another question came from a tall man standing in the back, arms folded across his chest.

If we are to provide meaningful answers and lead substantive reform, we must keep learning that which we teach: the essential outcomes of a liberal-arts education.

Do people who want to be doctors have to take that stuff?

And then another…

Doesn’t taking those extra classes make it cost more money to get your degree?

Fair questions. Then silence—and cold, hard stares.

I took a breath, and paused to reflect before crafting my response.

At our public, regional campus, students of all ages come from nearby communities in which a majority of adults have not completed a four-year degree. Data abound to help us understand these local populations, their economic realities and their perceptions of higher education.

And yet, our assumptions abound as well. As faculty, we expect first-year students who are eager to study and sacrifice because they and their parents or families appreciate the value of a liberal-arts education, the role of universities and professors in producing knowledge and, more importantly, wisdom—or knowledge applied—as well as the centrality of the liberal arts to the flourishing of democracy and the expansive impact of the campus on the local economy.

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When potential students, the general public and even our elected officials reveal that they do not share these perceptions, we are tempted to retreat in dismay, speculating about questions of our own. “Why,” we wonder, “must we—as chemists, playwrights, anthropologists and sociologists—be advocates for what is so obvious … to us?” Brilliant yet exhausted educators have their own query: “Isn’t it too much to ask that we make the case for the value of what we do while we’re so busy doing it?”

As this professor stood before that crowd, I knew that when prospective students and a skeptical public ask authentic questions about the liberal arts, there’s no one better prepared than faculty to provide answers. We are the products of a liberal-arts education, refined through years of disciplinary focus. If we are to provide meaningful answers and lead substantive reform, we must keep learning that which we teach: the essential outcomes of a liberal-arts education. Collaborative problem-solving. Critical and creative thinking. Quantitative reasoning. Applied knowledge in real-world settings. Civic engagement. The well-known list goes on. These arenas of knowledge, competency and responsibility are precisely what Oshkosh faculty employed to transform our general-education curriculum. But our work is far from complete.

At public institutions like UW Oshkosh, committed to inclusivity and an educated democracy, our teaching responsibility begins with the most basic of questions and our first, clear, compassionate and respectful responses.

Lori J. Carrell, a professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, is currently serving as interim director of the school’s new University Studies Program.

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  1. Those are tough questions. What you describe echoes what I experience working with community theater. When someone says, “Why do we need community theater? ” or “Why should we give money to support it?” we can stand nonplussed. Isn’t it obvious? Of course, it’s not, and we must build a case. The same is clearly true for the value of liberal arts education.

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